More and more people are discovering tenkara, the traditional Japanese form of fly fishing. As it grows worldwide, a number of manufacturers have popped up that make great tenkara rods for beginners. Choosing the right rod is crucial to getting the best start possible in your new hobby.
Read on for our picks for the best tenkara rods for a beginner. But first, a few notes on finding the best rod for your purposes.
Table of Contents
Choosing A Beginner Tenkara Rod
Be Careful With Cheap Rods
There are lots of cheap rods around Amazon and other online retailers that are marketed as “tenkara” rods. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that they’re usually also labelled as “carp” rods. Many come in amazing lengths, up to 40′ or more.
These rods are not designed for fly fishing, like normal tenkara rods. Instead, they’re usually used to cast bait. Bait is heavier, and the carp and other rough fish these rods are designed to catch are bigger than the mountain trout targeted in tenkara.
This means that those rods are heavier and stiffer than traditional tenkara rods. They won’t be as easy to cast, and will tax your wrist and arm during long sessions. You’ll save some money at the start, but most people eventually either give it up or move onto a better rod.
Luckily, there are multiple rods on this list that come in under $100, and are actually designed for tenkara. “Buy nice or buy twice” is definitely very applicable to tenkara. Spend just a little more, and you’ll end up with a much better rod and an easier learning experience.
Length Is Important
Without a reel to store line and help fight fish, the length of the tenkara rod becomes critical for a number of reasons. For one, a longer rod allows for greater reach. Longer rods also generally work better for fighting bigger fish, since the flex of the rod is your main weapon in the fight. However, a longer rod means more possibilities for entanglements in areas with tight canopies.
The standard length of a tenkara rod is around 12′ or 360cm. But you can get rods in a range of sizes, from 8′ all the way up to 20′ or more. While the standard size is the best for most people, you might find that a longer or shorter than normal rod is right for you.
Choose a shorter (10′ or less) rod if…
- Your favorite fishing streams have lots of overhanging branches
- You’re mainly targeting small (<12″) fish
- You want the most compact and lightweight option for backpacking
Choose a longer (13′ or more) rod if…
- Your favorite spots are mostly free from tangle hazards
- You’re targeting large (>16″) fish
- You want more distance and/or precision in your casting
Don’t Neglect Your Other Gear
A common beginner mistake is to set a budget and then buy a rod that hits the top of that budget. This is particularly a problem with people coming over from spin fishing, where the rod and reel are usually the most important and expensive part of the setup. But in all forms of fly-fishing, including tenkara, your line and leader is extremely important. And while they’re not as expensive as most spinning lures on an individual basis, you’ll want to get a bunch of different flies to try out. Don’t end up having to buy the cheapest options available because you spent all your money!
Most of the rods in this guide come with “starter kits” that include line, leader, flies, and often a few extras besides. While you can get everything separately if you’d like, these kits are usually the best option for a tenkara beginner.
Summary: The Shadowfire is a solid tenkara rod that isn’t just for a beginner. As an all-around tenkara rod at a great price, it’s perfect for any experience level. It’s also a great choice to take backpacking given its light weight.
Dragontail’s mission is to provide high-quality tenkara gear for any budget, and they certainly hit that mark with their Shadowfire rod. It’s marketed towards the tenkara beginner, but made to a very high spec, making it a great fit no matter how experienced you are. If you’re worried about outgrowing your “starter” rod after a while, this is a great rod to get, since it will last you a long time.
One key is how easy it is to cast with the Shadowfire. The rod is a little stiffer around the bottom than most rods, but has a nicely flexible tip. That, combined with a well-sculpted handle, makes it quite easy to get comfortable, accurate casts. The Shadowfire is also a fairly lightweight rod, cutting down on fatigue during long fishing sessions.
The extra bit of stiffness towards the bottom of the rod also helps with larger fish. While tenkara is usually practiced in smaller streams, it’s becoming more and more popular in areas with trout over 12″ in length. Without a reel, landing a fish with a tenkara rod can be tough for a beginner, and it’s nerve-wracking wondering if your rod will snap. But the Shadowfire is more than sturdy enough to handle a decent-sized trout (even up to 20″!).
Tenkara USA Sato
Summary: The Sato is not only the perfect beginner rod, it’s a great step up from any of the other tenkara rods on this list. For someone who has experience with other forms of fly fishing, this would be a great introduction to tenkara that offers plenty of room to grow (literally and figuratively).
Tenkara USA was the first company in the United States to popularize tenkara, and they’ve taken that passion into their rods. While their first rods were based off of traditional Japanese rods, they’ve tinkered and experimented to create new and innovative designs. This definitely shows in the Sato.
While the Sato is a little more expensive than the other rods on this list, it has a few features that are well worth the extra money. One of the most useful is its expandable size. All tenkara rods telescope out, but most are designed to function well only when fully extended.
The Sato, on the other hand, works at three different lengths: 10’8″, 11’10”, and 12’9″. This gives you a lot of flexibility when you’re out fishing. In a tight stream with smaller fish and a lot of overhead branches, keep it shorter. When you’ve got plenty of room and the fish get bigger, extend it. This can be especially useful on a longer trip, where you may be fishing in a variety of waterways but only want to pack one rod.
Another useful feature is the “keep your plug” hole at the bottom of the rod. It seems like a silly thing, but losing the top plug is as common as it is frustrating! Little touches like that show the careful design that Tenkara USA puts into their rods.
At 2.6 ounces, the Sato is also incredibly lightweight, the lightest out of any of the rods on this list. It might not seem like a big difference, but a heavy rod can wear out your wrist over the course of a long day of casting.
Wild Water Tenkara Starter Pack
Summary: The Wild Water Tenkara Starter Pack does just what it promises. It has everything you could possibly need to start tenkara fishing, at a price that can’t be beat.
Wild Water is well-known in the “regular” fly fishing community for solid starter packs that give a beginning angler everything they need at an affordable price. Their foray into tenkara is no different. With this pack, you get everything you need to get out there and start fishing.
The only area that you can sense the less expensive nature of this rod is in the aesthetics. Wild Water doesn’t spend a lot of time making their rods look like a million bucks, which is fair enough. There are a few imperfections in the finish, especially on the cork handle. But those are purely cosmetic; the rod performs excellently.
At 3.1 ounces, it’s a little heavier than most of the rods on this list. Still, that’s a far cry from the weight of a normal fly rod and reel or a spinning combo. It’s a little stiffer than the others as well, but sensitive enough to feel the bites of smaller fish. For beginners who fish in a lot of stocked areas, where trout are usually in the 10-16″ range, the Wild Water is perfect.
It’s also the cheapest option on this list. While other rods have various accessories or starter packs, Wild Water goes above and beyond with the gear they include. You won’t need to worry about any other decisions about gear for a while if you get this pack. Just open up the box and start fishing!
Tenkara USA Iwana
Summary: Along with the Dragontail Shadowfire, the Iwana is probably most “standard” tenkara rod on this list. If you’re unsure about what length or features you want, either of these are solid choices.
The Iwana is named after one of the traditional targets of tenkara fishermen in Japan, the white spotted char (iwana in Japanese). It’s designed as a perfect entry-level rod, as standard a tenkara rod as you’ll find. That’s great for a beginner, and whether you move on to another rod or keep using the Iwana, you’ll have a good baseline for what a tenkara rod can do.
The Iwana is available in 9′, 11′, and 12′ lengths. 12′ variety is the best all-around rod. As the rods get shorter, they get stiffer. The 9′ one, while very light, is much harder to cast. If you’re fishing in very tight spaces, or looking for the absolute lightest rod, that might be the one to get. But otherwise, go longer if you’re looking at the Iwana.
The 12′ version is still quite light, only a tenth of an ounce heavier than its cousin the Sato. It also has a very light action that makes casting quite easy. With its very light action, fighting fish is fun but can get interesting. While it’ll handle larger trout, it’s best when you’re targeting fish in the <14″ range. Don’t worry if the rod is almost bent in half, it’s designed that way!
Summary: The Talon is the perfect fishing companion for backpackers who want to get into tenkara. It’s lightweight, compact, and designed for smaller mountain streams and tight spaces.
Tenkara is particularly popular among backpackers looking for a simple and lightweight way to catch dinner. Dragontail created the Talon with them in mind, and kept it very budget-friendly. At only 2.9 ounces, it’s extremely light. It’s only 17″ when collapsed, making it perfect for throwing in a pack. But it’s still sturdy enough to take a beating on the trail.
The Talon is shorter than the rest of the rods on this list, making it well-suited to smaller mountain streams. While it can handle a good-sized trout, it shines with fish under 12″. The shorter length also helps keep it from tangling in brush or branches. In fact, this is a great rod for a beginner to get used to casting without having to worry about catching anything other than fish.
Unlike the rest of the rods on this list, the talon uses foam on their handle rather than cork. This is a little softer on the hands, and many will find it more comfortable. It is less traditional, though, which gives it a unique look. Whether you prefer foam to cork is probably down to personal preference more than anything.
The tip is also remarkably sensitive for an inexpensive rod. While every angler will appreciate this, it’s especially great for beginners who are just learning what a fish biting feels like.